Pallavi Singh (B. 1988) received a BFA and subsequently a MFA in painting from the College of Art, Delhi. The only university she applied to for her undergraduate studies, her razor-sharp focus is a trait that characterises her practice even today. One of the first and possibly only female artists to focus solely on the metrosexual male, her contemporary works have garnered attention of galleries, scholars and collectors from all over the world. I was lucky to get a chance to speak with her candidly about the evolution of her practice.
1. What persuaded you to practice art?
I like engaging in visual arts, because it has a power that can be interpreted on multiple levels. Thinking back to one incident, it was after I graduated 10thgrade I elected to study fine arts. In the 11thgrade we (Singh’s art class) took a field trip to the College of Art, Delhi during their annual exhibition. It was my first time going to the College and I just liked the ambience a lot, I felt connected to it, and it was a zone that I knew I wanted to be in. That feeling, the essence remained with me and was what pushed me to move towards art as a career.
2. Can you tell me a little more about your route into art?
That one field trip to the College of Art, Delhi stayed with me for a long time. I thought to myself that I want to be here, I just don’t know how. I only applied to the College of Art after school. People asked me, “What if you don’t get in?” It was the only school I applied to, but I was determined that I will get it and if I don’t get it I will take a gap year and apply again.
No one in my family is from an art background, so I didn’t have too much guidance. Hard work and luck were the main factors that ensured I got in. While at university I got a reality check; you have to understand technicalities, it wasn’t glamorous. By the time I reached my Masters I applied to other colleges as well, including Shanti Niketan and Baroda. But I got a chance at the College of Arts again. I did visit the other 2 colleges and got to see what is happening there. This allowed me to gain an in depth knowledge of what’s happening in the rest of the country.
Then I got into Khoj for a residency, everything I did was a first experience and every experience taught me something. At Khoj there were a lot of ups and downs, criticisms but that is when my journey began.
3. As a little girl of 5 or 7 years old what did you want to do?
I have an older sister, so I wanted to do whatever she did. The one thing that remained constant with me was visual arts. Even during my exams instead of revising I would be making art. I even enjoyed biology as a subject because of the chance to draw diagrams. Art has always been my first choice.
4. Do you have a favourite memory in your career so far.
There are certain incidents, which are important elements of my journey, which have made me what I am today. Definitely my first time visiting Delhi College and my entry to the Khoj programme was my first public presentation and critique (are important). The other residencies that I did, the one in Bangalore was my first out of Delhi residency, were significant moments. The first time that I went to the US for a residency [was a big moment]. They add on to my personality and perspective. I will remember them. My favourite I don’t know. They are all part of the journey.
5. Inspirations in art and life
I have taken a lot from my surroundings, the society in which I live in, the lifestyle, the lifestyle upgrades, TV shows, commercials, everything inspires me. I do add exaggeration. It is the whole environment around me, which inspires me. What I find as usual, other people find unusual. Anything that is striking to me is what I use in my art.
6. One word to describe your practice
7. Your practice is centred on the metrosexual male, why and how did you choose this subject?
It never started with the metrosexual male. It was pure daily life, what was happening in my surroundings. The focus was the middle-aged man, I was exploring the lust, sexuality and desire to look good. When I would take the bus from my house to my college I would notice how men would behave. Their never-ending desire to look good. People assumed I was portraying homosexuality, but I wanted to convey that I was looking at the straight man. During this time I didn’t even know what or who a metrosexual man was, until a cousin commented that ‘your men look metrosexual’.
I began researching what a metrosexual male was, I came across Mark Simpson who coined the term and I emailed him, I was shocked that he even replied. He said he coined the term in 1994 and since then the term has been changing.
Now that I had this term I was excited to tell people. Through my own research I realised that there is no single mould of a metrosexual man, he is represented in all age groups, social classes. He breaks the social constraints that pigeonhole men as strong, macho figures. But people were not ready to accept this this term, because it was often confused with sexuality.
8. How were you able to finally explain your works to a larger audience?
I adopted a new approach to try and bring the concept of metrosexuality to the Indian context. I decided to use mythology and refer to it as the grooming culture of men within Indian society. Metrosexuality has its origins in western culture; Dandyism in Britain is one such example. However, it can be seen even in Indian examples. The Ashwini twins in Hindu mythology are twin gods who are considered the most handsome. They are treated as the founders of Ayurveda and in my work today I use them to draw comparison with plastic surgeons and other groomers who are responsible for the metrosexual mans beauty and essence.
Now when I use the term metrosexual, people are definitely more accepting. You have to make an effort to make people understand, so for 4-5 years I changed the language. I’ve also introduced many new elements to the work. The concept of metrosexuality is no longer just limited to a man who wants to look beautiful. It is a concept through which sexuality; gender stereotypes and the notion of beauty can be explored.
9. What is a secret that has helped your career?
If it’s a secret why should I tell you? I don’t have a secret. Have you seen Kung Fu Panda, Po’s father says that there is no secret ingredient you just need to believe in yourself.
You have to be a fish to be able to move against the current, if the world is going in one side you must have the strength to go in another way.